On the heels of reports that Iraqi insurgents intercepted live video feeds from pilotless U.S. spy planes, Pentagon officials downplayed the security threat and said the "old issue" had been fixed.
But military technology analysts and others say officials cannot assume that the hacking of drones did not cause any damage. And, they add, as the Department of Defense prepares to boost its fleet of aerial surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan, it needs to recognize the new set of security threats that will accompany this new era of remote-controlled warfare.
Pentagon officials Thursday confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that insurgents in Iraq used consumer-grade software to hack into the live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones.
The unmanned surveillance aircraft help the military collect crucial intelligence information in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones. Predators are also armed with Hellfire missiles that can take out enemy targets.
But using only off-the-shelf software programs such as SkyGrabber, which is available for $26 on the Internet, Shiite fighters were able to tap into the video feeds by exploiting an unprotected communications link.
Questioned by reporters, a senior defense official said, "it's an old issue that's been addressed and fixed."
When pressed to elaborate and confirm that all video feeds had been encrypted, military spokesmen declined to comment.
Another defense official told ABC News that the Pentagon has been familiar with the vulnerability for awhile, but did not express considerable concern. "What do you do with it [the information]?" he asked.
Given the challenge trained military officers already face in deciphering images from video feeds, he questioned how well an untrained eye would be able to interpret the raw data.
He also said the visual imagery is only a portion of the information gleaned by a Predator drone. Other data, such as heat signatures, help put the images in context and the hackers presumably did not have access to that.
The official said he'd be more concerned if hackers stepped up their attacks and attempted to take control of the aircraft, but said that hasn't happened.
Traveling in Iraq today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said that he is very concerned about hacking threats and cybersecurity, but affirmed that the recent attack caused no significant damage.
Still, despite the military's assurances that the hacking of drones neither put troops in harm's way nor compromised operations, military technology analysts question the Pentagon's decision to neglect the flaw for so long.
"It's been reported from the various spokesmen that we didn't suffer attacks or corrupted information, but you don't know what could have happened if the enemy wasn't able to see what we see," said Dakota Wood, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. "You can't make the assumption that no damage was done right now. There's no way you could say that."
Wood emphasized that it's difficult to prove a negative. It's possible that some operations were indeed thwarted because of information provided by the video feeds, he said.